All kinds of inhumanity and violence have been perpetrated by people calling themselves ‘Marxists’. Perhaps the most extreme expression of this inhumane disrespect and sectarian violence in the name of ‘Marxism’ was manifest in the Soviet Union under the leadership of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. But that was not the only instance. Many other socialists and communists who have acknowledged an intellectual debt to Marx, have also committed numerous acts of inhumanity.
The combined effects of these atrocities and general unpleasantness have been to unfairly discredit Marx and obscure the real humanist essence of his revolutionary ideas. This humanist essence flowed from his concern to understand the alienating and deforming social and cultural varieties developed in the long economic evolution of social forms of labour. By his own industrious efforts – research, writing and activism – he sought to reveal the source of this self-alienation and in doing so, point to the way the human species can transcend it.
Marx on Humanism.
In most of Marx’s writing it is possible to detect a humanist wrath against the exploitation and injustices of the capitalist mode of production and the bourgeoisie who benefit from it. Even in the midst of the detailed economic analysis in his major publication ’Das Kapital’ we can read striking views such as the following;
“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” (Marx. Capital Volume 1. Chapter 10.)
And in another work;
“The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly arisen small-holding and manured it with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks out its blood and brains and throws them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital.” (Marx. Eighteenth Brumaire… Section 7)
Although the abstract economic categories of labour and capital are often being used in his extensive works, Marx still has the human being and the nature of the relationship between human beings clearly in mind. However, the most comprehensive outline of Marx’s thought on the essence of humanity and humanism is contained in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In these notebooks, Marx considered the estrangement of humanity from its natural social and productive essence. That is to say social forms of production have been developed during which the products of labour no longer belong to those who produce them. In such class-based societies, a ruling class, exploits the labour of a working population and accumulates all the wealth.
In this way human labour and the products of labour are alienated or ‘estranged’ from those who produce. The workers become virtual strangers to their work processes and what they produce. They no longer organise and produce for themselves but are organised by (and produce for) others. Marx designates this development within humanity as a form of ‘self-estrangement’. After dealing with the alienating character of wage-labour under the capitalist mode of production, Marx turns to the question of how to transcend the self-estrangement of all previous distorted forms of social labour. It is at this point he drives straight to the root of the natural/social essence of humanity. He writes:
“In the relationship with woman, as the prey and handmaid of communal lust, is expressed the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself — for the secret of this relationship has its unambiguous, decisive, open and revealed expression in the relationship of man to woman and in the manner in which the direct, natural species- relationship is conceived. The immediate, natural, necessary relation of human being to human being is the relationship of man to woman.”
“It is possible to judge from this relationship the entire level of development of mankind.”
It is no accident that Marx in tearing away the accumulated layers of socio-economic forms introduces the issue of gender and the way the female part of the species is treated. The species and each community whatever their socio-economic mode of production relies for its future existence upon the relationship between the sexes. Marx suggests that the nature of that relationship between man and woman can be a sort of litmus test for judging the general developmental level of mankind. In other words, where women are the domestic slaves (wives) or subordinate citizens to men, the humanist level of humanity has been driven below its original natural essence.
Over long periods of time, humanities natural and original essence has become distorted and not just in the case of male and female relationships, but also in male/male relationships. Marx makes the point that capitalism makes wage-slaves out of a subordinate labouring class (male and female) and zero-wage slaves out of women. He comments that both in different ways have to prostitute themselves – ie sell their bodily labour for a period – in exchange for money.
A female or male, forced into prostitution by needs, sell the use of their bodies on the street. Workers forced to work by needs sell the use of their bodies at the factory or shop. He also noted in 1844 that marriage under the domination of bourgeois culture amounts to a form of domestic slavery for the female gender. The nature of this essential gender relationship, he continues;
“.. therefore demonstrates the extent to which man’s natural behavior has become human or the extent to which his human essence has become a natural essence for him, the extent to which his human nature has become nature for him. This relationship also demonstrates the extent to which man’s needs have become human needs, hence the extent to which the other, as a human being, has become a need for him, the extent to which in his most individual existence he is at the same time a communal being.”
Within class-based societies, the extent to which behaviour has become human or overwhelmingly humane is sadly not very far. Under such estranged forms of social interaction, the ‘other’ ceases to be viewed as a human being with whom we are connected by many (often invisible) strands, and assumes the form of a subject or object. For example; other human beings become a subject or object of desire (a sexual conquest); a subject or object which fulfils useful work (a worker or slave); a subject or object which consumes a product or service (a consumer or punter). As such the actual needs of the ‘other’ become largely irrelevant for us. Only ‘our’ own needs are recognised as having full legitimacy, frantic urgency or special priority. Even on the left, this still occurs!!!
So as workers (white or blue-collar) we are estranged, not only from our own labour and the products of that labour, but estranged from the whole network of workers upon whom we ultimately depend. Class, race and religious ideology has also served to split humanity into further non-inclusive segments. The black worker who picks our bananas is too often perceived as a distant despicable, lazy, or even devious heathen; the utilities worker who provides our water, gas, electricity has for all intents and purposes ceased to exist for us except when in dispute he or she inconveniences us; the immigrant displaced from his or her homeland and replaced by European capital and technology instead of a victim becomes perceived as a hated and much abused immigrant intruder or potential perpetrator.
This de-humanisation of the ‘other’ takes on its most extreme form during periods of colonial and imperial war or economic crisis, but in essence it is the same de-humanisation as that which takes place in the home. There, since the onset of patriarchy, the wife has been a chattel and she and the children belong – body and soul – to the patriarch – owned like a piece of property. In modernity, too often the female partner is used and abused as a cleaner, cook and personal sex worker. The historic processes set in motion by class-based modes of production allow and promote societies in which a denial of the full humanity of the ‘other’ becomes the default position in their cultures. This is despite the obvious fact that societies – no matter how badly distorted – at root, are also an expression of the essence of humanity. Marx again;
“Society is therefore the perfected unity in essence of man with nature, the true resurrection of nature, the realized naturalism of man and the realized humanism of nature.”
Individuality and social being.
Given that these 1844 notebooks and the extracts used here were Marx’s own notes to himself, the sentences may not always be easy for us modern readers to assimilate. Nevertheless, it is clear that in the above extract Marx is saying that human society – however, currently deformed – represents the unity of humanity with nature and that this is ‘the realized humanism of nature’. Humanity is a conscious product of nature – a product of nature which has become ‘humanised’ by its consciousness and collective forms of labour. Stressing this collective essence he goes on to write; “Man’s individual and species-life are not two distinct things”. Further;
“It is, above all, necessary to avoid once more establishing “society” as an abstraction over against the individual. The individual is the social being.”
In other words the common dualistic notion that there is society on the one hand and the individual on the other is an illusion created by the division of labour and its modern complexity. In reality they are inseparable. To repeat: The individual is a social being. Marx gives himself as an example;
“But also when I am active scientifically, etc. – an activity which I can seldom perform in direct community with others – then my activity is social, because I perform it as a man. Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product (as is even the language in which the thinker is active): my own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with the consciousness of myself as a social being.”
In other words there is no real individuality except the social individual who owes his or her being to the current and past social form of existence. The exaggerated claim of unique individuality expressed as achieved – in spite of society – is a distorted bourgeois view. It is a view that wishes to discount all the human beings who contribute to this or that individual social being. The artist or actor, for example, could not become so if thousands of others did not labour in teaching, creating the artistic instruments, supplying the electricity, disposing the rubbish, making clothes to wear, transporting them around, providing the means to eat, sleep and enjoy life. Similarly the uniquely wealthy could not become wealthy without the exploited labour of thousands of others.
On top of this it is the community which provides the workforce and audience – without which there could be no production, performance, no exhibition and no reason to embark upon a career leading toward such a privileged statuses. Then of course – in addition – there is the whole historical contribution of any particular branch of human activity which went before and upon which foundation the current practices are based. The whole egotistical self-indulgence of the entrepreneur, artist, sport and celebrity elite – aren’t I great – is in so many self-serving ways a denial of the total human support team past and present. All of whom enabled this or that individual to produce or perform to their current level of ability.
It is a clear recognition of this complete social dependence and inter-dependence of humanity which corrects the distorting lens of bourgeois individualism, its cultural assumptions and reveals the real social essence of all humanity. And of course, this complete social essence and dependence pivots around the fundamental natural relationship between men and women. The female of the species not only carries each new individual in her womb, but gives to that developing neonate important elements of DNA as well as nutrients until its birth. Even after that, nurture, protection and nutritional sustenance are predominantly administered by the female.
We need to ask what sort of human societies and ideologies keep women as second class, subservient and doubly oppressed people for thousands of years? The answer is societies split into classes and dominated by patriarchal ideologies – the latter most thoroughly embodied in the Abrahamic religions. What sort of societies and ideologies for thousands of years relegate one section of humanity into workhorses in the form of slaves or wage-slaves, whilst an elite appropriates all the wealth and leisure? More recently: What kind of societies dump their unwanted workers on the scrap heap and starve them by austerity, while they gorge themselves on the very best? The answer is the same. It could only happen in societies split into classes and dominated by patriarchal ideologies. Yet it was the transformation of these conditions, that Marx proposed could and should follow an anti-capitalist revolution brought about by its own internal crisis.
Marx the Revolutionary.
All Marx’s work is infused with the need for an anti-capitalist revolution to solve the dire economic inequalities and the rampant over-production for profit. However what he was suggesting was a revolution which would go well beyond economic factors. The post-capitalist mode of production introduced after a successful anti-capitalist revolution would need and want to abolish economic classes and accelerate the conditions for a return to social equality in regard to gender, race, ethnicity and religion – ‘the muck of ages’ – as he elsewhere described it. He noted that such ideas were already nascent in various types of suggested socialism or communism. An early form was the radical proposal to level everybody down to the status of wage worker.
In this crude model (Marx’s term) there would be no economically derived class divisions and the state would act as the communal capitalist. Work would still not be self-determined or self-directed. It would still be wage-labour and people would still be living in order to work. In a second more refined version the state would have been abolished but people would still be dominated by the desire to work in order to ‘possess’ things – a muted continuation of commodity fetishism. Only ownership of some form of private property would perhaps inspire them to work and make them feel secure. In this way an exaggerated dependence on ‘things‘ would continue. The transcendence of the former self-estrangement would still be incomplete.
Writing of a more developed form of communal organisation, Marx argued that the real wealth of a person and a community would be in the full realisation and recognition of the social bonds of humanity. Humanity would cease to live in order to work and work only as much as is necessary in order to live. The human need would be for the enjoyment of treasured relationships and fully rounded experiences, rather than enjoyment of treasured and fetishised objects. In other words a reliance upon the quantity and quality of social bonds would replace dependence upon the quantity and quality of material possessions. This would be the real re-appropriation of ‘the human essence’ – a complete return of people to themselves as fully ‘social’ beings. Of this kind of socio-economic community Marx commented;
“This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence…..Communism is the riddle of history solved.”
Of course the language is somewhat dated with the term ‘man’ being used to include all of humanity. Dated also is the term ‘communism’ since that term is now indelibly linked with the Soviet Union, The People’s Republic of China and other hierarchical and brutal state-capitalist forms. The instigators of these modes of production didn’t even put Marx’s suggestions on their agendas, let alone in any of their practices. However, this only negates the term we use, not the content of the meaning originally assigned to them.
The purpose of revolution against the capitalist mode of production and the creation of a communal alternative, according to Marx, would be to institute a ‘fully developed humanism’ – a humanity at peace with itself and at peace with nature – which would be ‘the riddle of history solved‘. For this reason I suggest if a descriptive label needs to be attached to Marx, then Marx was a revolutionary-humanist. That is also the first reason why I have adopted the term to describe myself.
In view of the extracts above, it is perhaps not surprising that in the ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’ by Marx, the term ‘human’ appears 250 times, ‘nature’ 224 times and ‘essence’ on 84 occasions – often linked together. Since any transcendence of humanities self-estrangement, requires ‘a fully developed humanism’ it will also require a revolution in the mode of production. It makes logical sense, therefore to describe the intellectual recognition of the means and purpose of this entire process as – revolutionary-humanism.
There have of course been many humanists before Marx and also many revolutionaries since, but few have linked the two aspects so meticulously and thoroughly as Karl Marx. The essence of Marx’s ideas is therefore best described as Revolutionary-Humanism, not Marxism. The term ‘Marxist’ as with ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’, has been used and systematically abused by sectarians and opportunist politicians to justify inhumanity, barbarity and sectarian divisions. These terms are all well past their sell-by-date for they no longer describe sufficient positive content. In my view they are no longer fit for purpose. That is the second reason why I continue to call myself a Revolutionary-Humanist.
Roy Ratcliffe (July 2013.)